Edge of Dawn (Chapter Seventeen)

THE GRIM MOOD AT THE ORDER'S D.C. HEADQUARTERS HAD not improved in the hours since word of Jeremy Ackmeyer's death at rebel hands had made headlines all over the world. As leader of the Order and the de facto public head of the Breed nation as a whole, Lucan Thorne's mood was darkest of all those gathered.

Now, at sometime past midnight, most of the Order's elder mem-bers based in the United States were present along with their mates, the group gathered in the drawing room of the mansion, situated just a few miles from the GNC headquarters at the National Mall. It was an odd juxtaposition: half a dozen long-lived, lethal Breed warriors more accustomed to combat gear and high-powered weapons, now seated in fancy, velvet-upholstered settees and delicate neoclassical armchairs.

Lucan wasn't a particular fan of the frou-frou furnishings, but it made his Breedmate happy, so he'd been obliged to go with it. Gabrielle had insisted they preserve the architectural authenticity of the place, which included a small fortune in eighteenth-century artwork and Asian porcelains gifted to the mansion's original owner, who'd served as a U.S. ambassador in the early 1900s.

She had, however, replaced a large, seventeenth-century English tapestry of Alexander the Great with another, far older one, which she said depicted a hero she much preferred to look at instead.

Lucan paced in front of that medieval-period artifact now, feeling the hand-rendered likeness of his own face judging him from within the woven threads of the tapestry that once hung in his quarters at the Order's Boston compound. Gabrielle, Gideon and his mate, Savannah, Brock, Jenna, and several others gathered in the drawing room in prolonged silence as Lucan practically wore a track in the Oriental rug beneath his boots.

Rio and his Breedmate, Dylan, were less than an hour arrived from the Order's base in Chicago. The Spanish warrior with the scarred face and normally easygoing demeanor was coiled forward where he sat, elbows resting on his knees, topaz eyes intense.

The other recent arrivals, Tegan and Elise, had come in from the base he commanded in New York City. The tawny-haired Gen One was one of the Order's original members from the time of its founding – and within the past twenty years had become one of Lucan's closest friends. Tegan and Elise had their own issues to contend with, namely, their twenty-year-old son, Micah, who was fresh out of warrior training and already embarking with his team on a black ops mission taking them to Budapest.

Elise was openly worried about letting her only surviving child out of her sight, but Micah was his father's son, and Lucan knew as well as anyone that holding on too tight would only risk making the break that much more permanent when it came. He saw that in his own son every day, a weight that settled on him even in the midst of the more immediate problems he faced tonight.

The remaining members still due at the D.C. headquarters included Hunter and Corinne, coming in from New Orleans in a few more hours. Scheduled to arrive tomorrow night were Dante and Tess, now in charge of the Order's base in Seattle, and Kade and Alex, overseeing the command center in Lake Tahoe. In light of the night's events in Boston, Chase and Tavia were staying put there until the eve of the summit gala, when they'd be coming in to attend.

Across the elegant space now, Nikolai's muttered curse was a hiss ripe with malice as his blond head swung away from his pregnant Breedmate and his glacial blue eyes hit Lucan. "Do we have any more intel about who these rebel bastards are and where they're hiding?"

"Only what you already know from Nathan's call tonight," Lucan replied gravely. "Unfortunately, his best lead so far was the information that one of the rebels had defected from his fold, taking Ackmeyer with him for ransom bait. We all know how that turned out."

Niko grunted. "And we have nothing on Mira. Not where she is or what they want with her. Or if she's already been . . ."

That the Siberian-born, battle-hardened warrior had been unable to finish the thought told Lucan just how deeply Niko's concern went. Renata's too. The tough-as-nails female who'd become a valued, highly effective member of the Order's combat missions these past two decades was slumped close to her mate, her jet-dark hair drooped into her face but not quite masking the lines of worry there. Renata's mercilessly lethal hands trembled a bit where they rested on the pronounced bump of her late-term pregnancy.

"We don't have anything more yet, but we will," Lucan told them. "We'll get her back safe and sound, I promise you."

He considered the kill op he'd sent Nathan on, its purpose to recover Mira and the human and shut down their captors with a minimum of noise or attention. Nathan's skill and suitability for the job would never be in question, but the laboratory explosion and the killing of Jeremy Ackmeyer had blown their mission objective to pieces.

And the fallout from that disastrous event was creating newer, bigger problems of its own.

In just the handful of hours since the news of the prominent human scientist's death broke, there had been a swift, and extremely vocal, public outcry for justice. An outcry made all the more troubling when reports suggested not only that rebels were involved but that the Order was partially at fault for his abduction and resulting murder.

Lucan was still pissed that Ackmeyer's uncle, GNC director Charles Benson, had immediately gone to investigators and the press with the fact that the Order had been enlisted – and had ultimately failed – to keep the civilian safe on what was supposed to have been a simple security escort to D.C. for the upcoming summit gala.

The already uneasy human population reacted with paranoia and suspicion, a few vitriolic prophets of doom warning that this failure only confirmed what they already feared: that the Breed, and the Order in particular, could not be trusted to value human life.

Peace, the worst of them were shouting to anyone who would listen, could never be had living alongside inhuman monsters.

The answering panic was widespread and quickly gaining ground. Riots in Boston had begun spreading to other cities. The small number of protesters that were commonplace in front of the Order's D.C. headquarters had swelled to dozens in just a matter of hours. And while the civilians' upset was trouble enough, militant groups around the world were now using the attack on Ackmeyer's lab by suspected rebels as a rallying cry to vandalize and loot, to lash out at governments they deemed too willing to capitulate to the might and will of the Order and the rest of the Breed.

The current situation was, in a word, chaos.

With Lucan and the Order now standing squarely in the middle of it.

"We need to shut this shit down," Lucan growled, anger spiking as the rumble of picketers outside the estate's gates droned on. "We should be back on watch at our district command centers, in case the response to tonight's news escalates from aggravating provocation to all-out anarchy."

"Then again," Gideon interjected, "it may be more important than ever for us to stand with the GNC, show the human public that their panic is without merit, and the Order is on their side. Show the world that we can be trusted as a partner in the effort toward peace between our races."

Lucan saw Gabrielle and a few others nod in agreement. He knew they were probably right, but at the moment it was difficult to rein in the part of him that was ancient and answered to no one. The leader who, for centuries now, was accustomed to making the rules and, when called for, enforcing them with unstoppable might.

And right now, the last thing he gave a damn about was making a group public appearance at the summit, just to demonstrate solidarity with the GNC, whose members were apparently all too willing to throw the Order under the bus, or with the humans, who may never see the Breed as anything more than bogeymen just waiting for the opportunity to rip out their throats.

Diplomacy had never been his strong suit, and tonight it chafed more than ever.

Lucan curbed his internal aggression and paused to address Gideon. "Any leads on the name Nathan supplied us – this rebel bastard, Bowman?"

"I got zip so far," Gideon replied. "Bowman's kept his nose clean, that's for sure. I've dug everywhere I can for the guy – criminal activity, arrest records . . . no hard data on him anywhere. He's like a ghost."

Renata lifted her head, jade green eyes snapping with fury. "Meanwhile, he's got my child. If he's harmed Mira in any way – if he's . . . touched her . . . I want to be the one to personally eviscerate him."

"Not if I get to the son of a bitch first, babe," Niko said, his tone gentle, but his gaze lit up with amber rage.

Rio spoke next. "I say we gear up and head to Boston – the two of us, my friend. We'll hunt down this Bowman and the vermin he runs with, and when we find him, we'll make them dine on bullets and steel."

Lucan felt the same cold need to personally be the one to cut off the head of the enemy who'd taken one of the Order's own kin. That Bowman had also orchestrated Ackmeyer's abduction and death, inciting riots and jeopardizing the summit at the same time, only made Lucan's blood chill all the more.

As he considered the justice he would exact from the elusive rebel leader, Lucan's comm unit buzzed in his pants pocket. Who now? he wondered irritably, then barked out a curse when he saw who was calling him.

"Jesus fucking Christ," he snarled. "Bad enough I've been fielding calls all night from Council members, JUSTIS officials, and press. Now I've got that blowhard Reginald Crowe looking for a piece of me?"

Like a dog marking territory, the arrogant tycoon had been busy making sure he seized every opportunity to stake his claim on the summit. Hosting the pricey gala apparently wasn't enough for Crowe. He had also recently announced the unveiling of a sculpture commemorating First Dawn and the peace summit, presenting it as a gift to be installed at GNC headquarters during the gathering. Given Crowe's inflated sense of self-worth, Lucan wouldn't be at all surprised if the piece was a life-size statue of the man himself.

Lucan ignored Crowe's call, putting the device on silent and shoving it back into his pocket on another ripe curse.

It wasn't even a moment later that Darion appeared in the open doorway of the drawing room. Lucan could tell just from a glimpse at the young warrior's serious expression that more shit was about to rain down on them.

"What is it, son?"

"Director Benson," Dare replied, his deep voice tight with barely restrained outrage. "He's just made a public statement. It's on all the news outlets right now. The GNC was offered – and has accepted – a private security detail from Crowe Enterprises for the summit gathering. According to Benson, Crowe's team will augment and oversee the Order's involvement, effective immediately."

A few of the Breedmates gasped, punctuating the other, more vivid responses from the rest of the warriors gathered in the room.

Lucan grunted. "We'll see about that." While he absorbed the bullshit development with an air of stone-cold fortitude, inside he was seething. And the brunt of his contempt settled on the unknown face of the rebel leader who'd incited this entire fiasco.

Lucan grabbed his comm unit and hit Nathan's number. "Head into base now and await further command. This kill op is gonna go full-scale mission, with as many teams on the ground as needed to find Bowman and bring Mira home. He and his rebels need to be shut down hard, preferably in full public view. And I mean they need to be shut down permanently."

Kellan sat alone on the cool, moonlit thatch of overgrown grass that covered the stone mound of the seaside bunker. He and Mira had been back at the rebel base for several hours, after news of Jeremy Ackmeyer's death broke and the reaction in the city began to turn ugly fast. He didn't want Mira anywhere near an upset, volatile public, but Kellan was also more than a bit concerned about the prospect of an Order death squad working its way closer to him with every second.

Sooner or later, regardless of how cautious he'd been all these years, someone was going to mention the name Bowman and point a finger in the direction of the New Bedford base camp. And when that moment came, Kellan intended to meet it alone, sparing Mira and his remaining crew – his friends – from becoming collateral damage.

The fact that Cassian from La Notte insisted he'd recognized him from somewhere only increased Kellan's sense of ill ease. Ignoring the fact that the club owner had betrayed nothing of himself to Kellan's Breed talent, Kellan got the clear sense that the man was dangerous. Perhaps all the more so because he'd proven unreadable.

Kellan hadn't had a lot of time to worry about what his encounter with Cassian might mean down the road. His more pressing concerns were Mira and the handful of people who were counting on him to protect them. To lead them, even though he had never felt less equipped to navigate a safe course through what was becoming a fast-rising tide of wreckage.

He'd delivered word of the laboratory explosion that killed both Vince and Ackmeyer, along with news of the resulting public uproar to his crew when he and Mira had arrived. Then Doc and Nina had helped Kellan bury their dead while Mira assisted Candice outside for the ceremony. Chaz's grave on the grounds of the old bunker carried the scent of freshly turned earth, mingling with the pungent brine of the damp ocean breeze that rolled in off the cove to where Kellan sat, keeping watch through the night.

From his post on the broad point where the retired fort and gun batteries stood, Kellan stared out at the distant city lights of Boston. The bunker that had been built as a military stronghold during the humans' Civil War, and had survived nearly two hundred years afterward, now felt vulnerable and exposed. The Order could strike at any moment in the dark. In the daylight hours, the base was an easy target for raids by trigger-happy JUSTIS officers.

Kellan didn't know what time it was at the moment – early morning, certainly. But still dark. And so he waited. He watched. Prepared himself for what he had to do to keep Mira and his crew safe.

"Hey." Her soft voice caught him unaware, her movement quiet as she climbed up the side of the mound to join him. "Everyone's sleeping. Were you ever coming back inside?"

"In a while." He extended his arm and she crawled in close beside him. Her body fit so comfortably, her blond head a pleasant weight against his chest, her hair sweet and silky from a recent shower. He wrapped his arm around her shoulders, closing his eyes to savor how good it felt simply to hold her under the stars. He pressed a kiss to the top of her head. "You were great tonight, helping with Candice's wound and the funeral ceremony for Chaz . . . such as it was."

"I only did what needed doing, and as for your friend's funeral, it was a beautiful good-bye you all gave him," she murmured. "Simple but pure. You honored him well, Kellan."

The phrase she used – one reserved for the solemnest occasions in Breed traditions – touched him in a way he couldn't express. Instead, he tipped her chin up on the edge of his hand and kissed her. Not the hungered kind of kiss that they'd been sharing each time they'd connected since her arrival back in his life a few days ago but a kiss shaped by tender caring and gratitude, by profound respect . . . and, yes, love.

He loved this woman.

His woman.

He'd loved her nearly all his life. That feeling had never faded, not in all the time he'd been away from her. And now that he was feeling the power of having Mira close again, having her a part of his world – his heart – he wasn't sure how he would ever find the strength to walk away from her.

But he would have to.

Sooner than he cared to admit.

He didn't want to break their kiss now either, but Mira gently drew back. Her lavender-tinted eyes were gentle but filled with a quiet determination as they lifted to meet his sober gaze.

"We'll find a way through this," she declared, voice steady, as if she were heading into battle. "What happened tonight to Jeremy Ackmeyer – "

"Changes everything, Mouse." He caressed her stubborn jaw, then exhaled deeply, giving a slow shake of his head. "No, that's not right. It changes nothing. An innocent man was killed tonight. Murdered, just as your vision predicted."

"Yes, but not by you, Kellan. You didn't kill him."

He scoffed, low under his breath. "Didn't I? Would he be dead if I hadn't abducted him? My command to take him set this whole thing in motion. My hands are as stained with his death as those of whoever blew up that lab with him and Vince inside."

"But you didn't do it." He could hear her resolve slipping toward desperation. "You're not guilty of murder, Kellan, and you need to let the Order know that. They need to know everything. And they need to know it all now, before things get any more dangerous."

He smoothed a tendril of pale blond hair that stirred in the morning wind. "You're right."

"I am?" She swallowed, going suddenly still in his embrace. "You mean . . . you agree? You'll go with me to explain all of this to Lucan?"

"I will go to him, Mira."

With a small cry, she threw herself at him, arms holding him tight, face buried in the center of his chest, where his heart now labored with a regretful tempo. "I know everything will work out for us, Kellan. This is the only way – "

"Mouse," he said softly, pulling her up so she could see his face. She needed to understand the decision he'd reached. "I'll go to Lucan and the rest of the Order. I will tell them what I've done and why I left without explanation eight years ago. I'll tell them everything. But I will do it on my own terms. And I will do it alone."

Her expression fell, then hardened with confusion and no small amount of anger. "I need to be with you when you meet them. They need to hear my side of the story."

"When I meet with the Order, it won't be with any expectation that I'll be pardoned in this, Mira. If I were Lucan, I wouldn't see how mercy could possibly be granted. I am the leader of a rebel group. I have broken the law, too many times to count. I have committed conspiracy. And as of right now, I am culpable in the killing of a civilian. A human civilian, Mira." He blew out a low curse. "What do you think will happen when JUSTIS and the GNC hear that? When word leaks out that I – that the rebel leader known as Bowman – am actually Breed, the riots we're seeing tonight will look like a joke, like kids' pranks. There's no way the Order can excuse me without undoing all the strides the Breed has made toward peace with mankind."

"No." Her head swiveled side to side, then more resolutely. "No, I need to be able to vouch for what you tell them. If nothing else works, then I need to be able to throw myself on their mercy and beg them to understand, plead with them to make an exception for you. For me. For us. Kellan, you have to promise me you'll give me that chance – "

"I can't promise you that, Mira. I can't promise to put you through any more hurt or distress than I already have." He took her face between his palms, tenderly smoothing his thumbs over her cheeks and her trembling mouth. "But I will promise you this: I love you. God, I always have. Did you even realize that? All those months and years of trying to push you away when we were young. I was terrified of how much I cared for you. I'd lost so many people I loved, I couldn't bear the idea that if I let myself love you, I might lose you one day too."

"You'll never lose me, Kellan." A soft sob caught in the back of her throat as she reached up to put her hands around his neck. Her pale purple eyes glittered in the moonlight, filled with welling tears. "I don't care what the vision showed you. I won't let you go. I'm yours. I always will be."

"Ah, Mouse." He eased his forehead down against hers, wishing he had her stalwart courage. "You honor me well. Too well."

"I love you," she whispered. "I'll never stop loving you."

She clung to him now, and he held her close. As close as he could gather her to him. And still, it wasn't close enough. It never could be, when it came to his feelings for this extraordinary female.

He didn't want to die. And the last thing he wanted was to leave Mira again – all the worse, to leave her behind once more in true grief and pain. He would do everything in his power to prevent the vision from coming true, but he knew too well the power Mira's gift of Sight possessed. He had seen it predict fate with unerring accuracy. It was a knowledge he couldn't deny now, no matter how much he wanted to believe they'd find a way past the death sentence Lucan was destined to hand down to him.

But they still had the here and now.

They had this moment.

He rose with her, taking her up to her feet with him on the grassy mound atop the bunker. On the easternmost horizon, a thin glow was forming, just the barest edge of dawn. The night had passed and they were still safe. Still together, for now.

And they had hours of daylight in which to deal with decisions neither of them wanted to make.

Until then, Kellan wanted only Mira.

"Come with me," he murmured into her silken hair. "Let me love you for a while."

She slipped her hand into his and they walked, together, back into the sleeping fortress.

Back into the haven of his bed.